An acorn appears. The orb centered on the welcome mat in the curve of the C, the WEL and the OME forming a bracket. I decide the placement is an accident of nature and that this tree part was sent by the combination of a loose stem and a strong wind. I turn the knob on the door I painted green. I step over it and into my house. The soft jazz my husband plays warms the kitchen, where he is cooking potato leek soup.
I say, “It’s the strangest thing.”
He nods. At this point he is used to me finding strangeness where he would find nothing.
When I was a little girl, a little girl went missing. The TV did nothing but talk about her for months or what felt like months. The news anchors’ voices at once somber and thrilled: tonight at eleven.
My mother and father watched from the couch where they sat most evenings. Her legs layered over his lap as she said to my father, “Some maniac took her. She’s dead by now. Those poor people. That poor thing.”
I wondered if they knew I could hear them. I wondered why and when she became a thing.
A cigarette butt. The yellowed filter sticks straight up, the cylinder caught between the boards of the porch floor. I notice it because of the acorn. I’ve been looking down at the ground more when I walk, checking for fairies or smart squirrels or…something.
Something that is not fairies or squirrels and I know it.
Were it not for the acorn, I don’t know that I would notice this piece of trash standing at attention. I used to smoke on this porch, and a cigarette butt could easily have swelled up with the rain, like an earthworm. Some dreg of my past to remind me of the time when I was not quite so boring. Or perhaps I was more boring than I am now, since I was young and thought smoking would make me interesting.
I reach down to pull it out with thumb and forefinger. The logo has shredded against the wood and humidity, so I can’t check if it is a brand that I smoked. My husband sees me bent down and says, “What are you doing?”
I say, “Checking this cigarette.”
He shrugs and goes inside, into his own hemisphere of the house. In that space, there are no small things, only big things. Desk, chair, lamp, computer, phone. He has kept the items in his life in large manageable chunks.
Everything in my world is small and uncontained, spilling over into his, perhaps annoyingly. At least, I assume it must annoy him. I have never asked him about it. I would be afraid of the answer. I too have a desk, chair, lamp, computer, phone. But the desk is covered in crumpled pages. Empty cans of seltzer ring when I shift my chair, which has an old sweater crumpled in the space between the seat and the backrest. A rosary winds around the base of my desk lamp (I don’t remember why), the computer desktop is pocked with files, the phone is separate from the charger which is separate from the wall adapter and all of it is usually separate from me. In short, I am crumbs and my husband is as big and solid and contained as the house itself. I notice the small things because in many ways, I am one of the small things. I am scattered, as they say. I am not together.
At eleven years old a teacher wouldn’t let me take off my sweater because of the breasts that were forming there. The breasts became a piece of me separate from the rest: the first part of my body that observation breaks off and gives to those who see it instead of live in it.
The third thing that appears on my doorstep is a package that I ordered but forgot about. I am startled by it, big and blocky, before I remember what I’m expecting. My relief only lasts for a moment. On top of the cardboard box a frayed piece of fabric clings to the sharp corner and flutters in the breeze.
The pattern on the fabric looks familiar, but I can’t connect it with any garment. I decide the pattern is homey and would look familiar to anyone—green vines, blue flowers, and the hint of what might be a strawberry at the fraying edge.
I’m not sure why but as soon as it is between my fingers, I turn around and look out at the front yard. I appraise the road, the dark trees across the street, the windowed eyes of my neighbors’ houses.
I could say each of these items was brought by the wind but dismissing all three feels like an excessive weight to put on the chance of atmosphere. I bring the swatch to my husband and say, “This was on the package I ordered.”
He accepts the cloth from me and squints at it. “Huh,” he says.
“That’s all you can say?” I respond.
“Well,” he says, the fabric draping lifelessly over the back of his hand, as if it is playing dead for his benefit. “What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to acknowledge that it’s odd,” I say, after much deliberation.
“Are you freaked out?” he asks me.
I pause for long enough to appear to be considering. I am not considering. I am freaked out. I always have been. Freaked out is a condition of my existence.
“I think so,” I say.
“It’s just some fabric,” he says.
“No—but—it’s—” I stumble. I turn away from him to the counter where I’ve put the box. I open it with a knife (don’t think about being gutted) and take the contents out of the squeaky Styrofoam stuffing. I have turned away so that I can say: “Last week it was that cigarette butt, and the week before it was a perfectly placed acorn!”
“A perfectly placed acorn?” he interjects.
“There’s always something, like, waiting for me when we get back to the house. Like some kind of message that I shouldn’t get too comfortable. Like it feels—sentient,” I turn to him with closed eyes, ashamed.
When I open them, he folds his arms over his chest and lifts his eyebrows higher on his forehead, as if the one motion activated the other.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” I say.
“What what is like?”
I stare out into the backyard. The wind carries yellow leaves in tall whirls. I can’t explain this feeling to him. I feel like I am always blaming the wind for what might be malevolence.
He puts a hand on my shoulder and says, “It’s okay. We’re safe. I promise you.”
Without thinking I say, “Can anyone actually promise that?”
I have asked him this before.
“Of course,” he says.
“Of course?” I echo.
“Of course, I can promise we are safe. We are inside, aren’t we?”
I think again, you don’t know what it’s like.
When I was fifteen, an older man and I exchanged emails for about a month until my parents found out and put an end to it.
I shudder when I think about the line of questioning the emails were working up to: when and where he could see me.
At the sight of the whistle hanging on the doorknob, I freeze. It’s rusty, but I can tell it was once silver. It is on a lanyard that is fraying and brown with mud, but pink and neon yellow peek through. My husband is behind me with groceries. He is talking about something normal. He has been talking about something normal for the duration of the drive home from the store. I’ve been listening to normal, but I’ve been watching the faces around us, searching for someone familiar, for some warning. A face I have seen repeatedly but cannot place.
I feel him behind me, with that sense we all have of a human close. I can feel him see the whistle. These feelings, the awareness of him, the fact that I can tell when he is tense or when something has stopped him, when he is near, when he is nearing, the fact that I can recognize the sound of his footsteps coming up behind me, even in public, calms me on the good days. If all that I’m afraid of were real, I would know it, feel it. On the bad days, I think, you are feeling it.
“What have we here?” he says, and I’m already disappointed by his response to this clearly evil whistle. How oblivious he is to ill-will dangling from the door. He steps onto the porch and picks it up. I’m immobile on the top step, watching my husband with this thing that might as well be poisonous to the touch, and he is saying “One of the kids in the neighborhood must have left it.” I’m thinking how can you look at something like that and think of children and not of murderrapedeathdismembermentdisembowlementdecapitation?
He loops it around the stem of the potted palm next to the glider, steps back.
He says, “There!” as if it looks nice, as if it is decoration.
Walking to my dorm at night, a car slowed at the sight of me. The lights pulled into a side street and then began to back out; it was turning around.
By then I knew to be afraid, and I dove into the bushes and crawled to the back entrance of the dormitory, skirting the patch of light from the friendly bulb above the door. Darkness equivalent to safety in that moment, danger to being seen.
I decide that I’m getting rid of the whistle. I’m sure that my husband has forgotten about it by now, though I can’t. I lie awake at night thinking about it curled around the plant like a plotting snake. I imagine someone in the woods, smoking whatever brand of cigarette they left for me, watching the yellow windows of my house.
I imagine rheumy eyes dipping down from my bedroom window to the plant. I imagine them seeing the neon of the lanyard there—reflective in the dark—and thinking, Idiots don’t even know a threat when they see it.
I imagine this shape of a man shoving the whistle into the open dusty mouth of my severed head, which crowns the bloody bundle of my parts and my husband’s parts piled on the living room rug.
I’m wearing gloves when I open the door to retrieve the whistle. I nearly trip over the fifth offering: a pile of butterfly wings in the upturned lid of a cardboard box.
I scream and slam the door.
My husband comes down the stairs, still not alarmed enough for my taste. “What’s wrong?”
“Look on the porch,” I say. “Box,” I add in a hoarse whisper.
He opens the door and bends down. “Those kids,” he clucks to himself.
I scream in fear and rage. “Kids? Are you kidding me?”
He puts the box down and stands up, guiding me into the house by the elbow and closing the door behind us. He puts his hands on my upper arms and looks me in the eyes, “What is going on?”
“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” I say.
He says, “Why are you so afraid all the time?”
I say, “Why aren’t you afraid all the time?”
“Why would I be?” he says.
I laugh. “Good point,” I say. “Why would you be?”
He holds me close; his instinct to protect me against the world kicks in. I suppose my instinct, at this point, is to curl into him and imagine that he actually can protect me. It means something to me that he wants to.
My husband can walk at night. When it is dark, he’s the one who takes out the trash, whistling to himself as he does, sending the sounds of himself out into the dark. His existence pushes outward with abandon, mine shrinks in. The small things make animal noises.
The sixth item might not be an offering at all. I can’t tell. It’s an empty soda can that I blame it on the wind because I don’t want to feel crazy.
When dating, friends helped me to take precautions against the strangers I was meeting. My husband was one of these friends, circling me into a hug when I returned to the apartment complex that we both lived in. He would say, “I’m glad you’re safe. I didn’t trust that guy.”
Then we would smoke and laugh and talk about horrible stories of online dating, always stopping short of the urban legends or the murder stories. The women who had lived and explored the wilderness but never returned hung in the air with the smoke.
The seventh item is a severed finger.
I hear a thump on the porch and swing open the door, suddenly brave, to find a bloody ragged woman placing it there. She has nine fingers and a red stump, and she drops her right index finger onto the mat without looking up at the door, although I know she must have heard me.
I can hear her breath and I can hear mine. We are both breathing like we are running scared.
The crown of her head is thinning and caked with mud, matted locks forming behind her ears. Her clothing is ragged, the fabric of her shirt torn and recognizable as what was on the box. I know the print from somewhere.
I can’t think. I might be more afraid that she is muddied and not acknowledging my presence, but I am relieved she isn’t a man.
But then the bloody finger, let loose from her dripping hand, is so disturbing that I have ceased to think for now. I will have to process the horror of it later. For the moment, all I can do is wait for her acknowledgement.
I know she can feel me staring at her. Just as I can tell that my husband is waiting in the kitchen with one ear out for me to scream or something. He is waiting to comfort me because I always seem to need it. I needed it before him. I’ve needed it for as long as I can remember.
The woman looks up, ragged and spectral in her disarray, but unmistakably me.
The fabric of her shirt is the fabric that I wore the night I crawled back to my dorm. At the time, I was unsure if I needed to be so frightened. At the same time, I was positive that if I hadn’t, that night would be either my last or a jagged thing. A shard of memory, broken glass that I must crawl over to live.
I say, “Why are you frightening me like this?”
She speaks in a slow stammer, the sound of which I will hear when I get into bed next to my calm husband tonight and the night after that and all the nights that I remember I can be killed. The words jumbled, slow, lengthened, like the moan of an animal learning to speak. “So you never let your guard down.”
Then animal-me rewinds herself, thread respooling, until she has rolled back into the shadows of the trees across the street. There she can be useful: keep watch.
Maggie Mumford is a writer/director from rural VA. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Fat Magazine (Best of the Net Nominee), Bodega, After Happy Hour, Waxing & Waning, and The Wire’s Dream Magazine. Her story “Flying Circus” received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train for the 2017 short story award for new writers. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis, where she served as Creative Nonfiction Editor of The Pinch. She teaches composition and information literacy. Sporadic musings and attempts at networking can be found on Twitter @MaggieMumf.
Cover Design by Karen Rile